MD, PhD, MAE, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd.

Naprapathy is an odd variation of chiropractic. To be precise, it has been defined as a system of specific examination, diagnostics, manual treatment, and rehabilitation of pain and dysfunction in the neuromusculoskeletal system. It is aimed at restoring the function of the connective tissue, muscle- and neural tissues within or surrounding the spine and other joints. The evidence that it works is wafer-thin. Therefore rigorous studies are of interest.

The aim of this study was to evaluate the cost-effectiveness of manual therapy compared with advice to stay active for working-age persons with nonspecific back and/or neck pain.

The two interventions were:

  • a maximum of 6 manual therapy sessions within 6 weeks, including spinal manipulation/mobilization, massage, and stretching, performed by a naprapath (index group),
  • information from a physician on the importance to stay active and on how to cope with pain, according to evidence-based advice, on 2 occasions within 3 weeks (control group).

A cost-effectiveness analysis with a societal perspective was performed alongside a randomized controlled trial including 409 persons followed for one year, in 2005. The outcomes were health-related Quality of Life (QoL) encoded from the SF-36 and pain intensity. Direct and indirect costs were calculated based on intervention and medication costs and sickness absence data. An incremental cost per health-related QoL was calculated, and sensitivity analyses were performed.

The difference in QoL gains was 0.007 (95% CI – 0.010 to 0.023) and the mean improvement in pain intensity was 0.6 (95% CI 0.068-1.065) in favor of manual therapy after one year. Concerning the QoL outcome, the differences in mean cost per person were estimated at – 437 EUR (95% CI – 1302 to 371) and for the pain outcome the difference was – 635 EUR (95% CI – 1587 to 246) in favor of manual therapy. The results indicate that manual therapy achieves better outcomes at lower costs compared with advice to stay active. The sensitivity analyses were consistent with the main results.

Cost-effectiveness plane using bootstrapped incremental cost-effectiveness ratios for QoL and pain intensity outcomes

The authors concluded that these results indicate that manual therapy for nonspecific back and/or neck pain is slightly less costly and more beneficial than advice to stay active for this sample of working age persons. Since manual therapy treatment is at least as cost-effective as evidence-based advice from a physician, it may be recommended for neck and low back pain. Further health economic studies that may confirm those findings are warranted.

This is an interesting and well-conducted study. The differences between the groups seem small and of doubtful relevance. The authors acknowledge this fact by stating: “together with the clinical results from previously published studies on the same population the results suggest that manual therapy may be as cost-effective a treatment as evidence-based advice from a physician, for back and neck pain”. Moreover, the data do not convince me that the treatment per se was effective; it might have been the non-specific effects of touch and attention.

I have said it before: there is currently no optimal treatment for neck and back pain. Therefore, the findings even of rigorous cost-effectiveness studies will only generate lukewarm results.

One Response to Naprapathy versus advice to stay active for nonspecific back and/or neck pain: a cost-effectiveness analysis

  • Those interested might find this historical accout interesting!
    http://www.luckybodies.com/en/naprapathy/naprapathy-history.

    Or even ‘Real Secrets of Alternative Medicine’ (Amazon, cheap!) page 22.

    Essentially, Oakley Smith was trained as a chiropractor (having failed to gain a MD), but then realised that Palmer’s theories did not stand up, travelled to Europe, picked up massage techniques and devised his own system to ‘correct’ facscia and soft tissues (Naprava: Czech; ‘correction’.)

    For some reason his system became (modestly) popular in Sweden where massage of various sorts is much appreciated.
    Inevitably, folks who like this sort of thing like to style practitioners as ‘Doctors of Naprathapy’ – but it’s all hocus pocus as explemplified by that fact that one of the best known (entertainment) magicians, responsible for a clasic set of books on deception and illusion, ‘Dr’ Harlan Tarbell, was a naprapathy practitioner.

    The placebo effect is indeed powerful, and massage is comforting. Magic works. Nuff said.

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